OK, we admit a bias here.

We love libraries and the people who staff them. We believe that the public library is perhaps the most democratic of institutions, an open-armed home for the homeless, refuge for the latchkey generation, font of knowledge for the schooled, unschooled and perpetually curious.

Unfortunately, too many libraries are becoming less open, not because of changing policies or homeland security issues (where the librarian has become a front-line defender of privacy rights), but because of budget constraints. Funding cuts have forced many systems to reduce staff, hours and days of operation.

Officials in John Steinbeck's city of Salinas, CA, voted in December 2004 to close the main library and both branches. The libraries remain open only because of local fundraising efforts. In several states, librarians have carried their cause to the capitol steps.

When we began our study of library budgets, we planned to list the communities that showed the greatest appreciation for libraries, by ranking levels of local government funding. Our thought was that the cities and towns at the top should serve as models.

However, given the current climate, we fear that such a listing might be used as justification for reducing the budgets of favored libraries, rather than increasing support to those in need.

So we reversed our focus, and looked at the other end of the spectrum. How many libraries are struggling with substandard budgets?

Using data recently released by the National Center for Education Statistics, we studied library expenditures per population served, for fiscal 2002. We adjusted these figures for differences in cost of living, using per-capita income figures from the 2000 census.

Our survey was limited to public libraries receiving local support, with total expenditures of at least $10,000 in fiscal years 2001 and 2002, and serving unduplicated populations of at least 2,000 people.

The average 2002 spending (adjusted) of the 6,349 public libraries included in our study was $30.32 per person served. Of the library systems studied, 1,130 (18 percent) reported per capita spending that was less than half that. Those libraries - with annual spending of less than $15 per person - are shown in the above map.

We won't bother to make a case for why $15 per year per person is a despicable amount to allocate for public libraries. (We can't resist pointing out, however, that the typical household spent an average $52 per month for cable access in 2002.)

The world grows more complex by the hour. The digital divide grows ever wider. And library spending ought to be growing, too.

· For more information on the NCES figures, see the March 2005 report, Public Libraries in the United States (pdf). The data for this report can be found at

· To check figures for your local library, use our library search page, or simply search for your community name and go to the "Libraries" section of the page.

Sources: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau, J.D. Power & Associates
-- May 2005
Other rankings and top 10 lists

Los Angeles, CA

Pros: climate; entertainment-media capital; geographic diversity; beaches.

Cons: Traffic; bad schools; gangs; too spread out.

This is a good place to Enjoy nightlife, including restaurants, bars, clubs.

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